John Hume: the politician who made peace possible

The editors of a book of essays exploring John Hume’s remarkable career chart his evolution from civil rights activist to nationalist leader and international statesman


John Hume transformed the politics of Ireland North and South, and reshaped relationships between Ireland and Britain. He also changed perceptions of the Northern Ireland situation in the outside world, particularly in Britain and the United States, but also within the European Union, and much further afield as well. When he – and the generation of Northern Ireland civil rights leaders for whom he was a major strategist and spokesperson – took to the streets in 1968, to protest about longstanding abuses of power by successive unionist governments, an avalanche of change followed. Afterwards, the politics of this island could never be the same again.

Before the civil rights movement, the political elite in Dublin had largely forgotten about Northern Ireland, and knew very little about what was going on there. Before the civil rights movement, the nationalist political elite in the North had settled into a futile routine of protesting about partition, and sectarian discrimination, and hopelessly calling upon successive British governments to end their predicament. However, in the decades after partition, British governments resolutely refused to intervene in the politics of Northern Ireland, for fear of stirring up a hornets’ nest that would intrude into the domestic politics of Britain.

After 1968 it was clear that this approach could not be maintained. The world had been changed utterly by television; pictures of civil rights protests and police onslaughts on peaceful demonstrators were being beamed all over the world. British governments, which held ultimate responsibility for Northern Ireland, could not be seen to be completely inert in the face of legitimate demands for change, and the obvious deterioration of public order in part of the United Kingdom which followed unionist opposition to reform.

Television was the ideal medium for John Hume. He quickly developed an easy mastery of the mass media, projecting an articulate, personable and highly persuasive persona. He also developed a clear and compelling analysis of the Northern Ireland problem, and a compelling framework of democratic principles upon which a solution had to be based. His philosophy rested upon principles of tolerance, social justice, respect for and accommodation of difference, the complete rejection of violence, and the imperative of working for political progress by means of dialogue aimed at achieving consensus. He drew heavily on the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi, and Dr Martin Luther King Jr, whom he quoted repeatedly. This approach was more than difficult to resist, in the late twentieth century, and almost impossible for the unionists and the British to rebut.

In the late 1960s, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Northern Ireland was constantly in the news, internationally. The person most frequently consulted by the international media about the ongoing crisis was John Hume. As a consequence, and because of his enormous influence in Irish-America and in the European Parliament, he became an internationally known and widely respected world figure. The word “charisma” has almost been worn out by repetition and misuse, but what other word can be used to describe the qualities of someone who, by the force of his personality, the cogency of his logic, the visionary content of his message, and his mastery of the arts of communication through the mass media, won over to his point of view a whole generation of Irish political leaders, the elite of the Irish-American establishment, the overwhelming majority of European political leaders and a very significant section of British public opinion. It is difficult to imagine how the Northern Ireland problem might have been resolved, or the Good Friday Agreement achieved, were it not for the fact that John Hume had lined up such an enormously powerful international alliance in favour of a settlement based upon the principles he enunciated.

John’s charisma derived from his absolute inner certainty that he had correctly analysed the problem, and had formulated the right answer. It was not an answer peculiar to him. His party colleagues were of like mind, and others who were initially sceptical came to share his analysis and solution. However, it was Hume’s communication skills that convinced the initially sceptical, and so it was to him that people looked for guidance, analysis and leadership. Whenever challenged about his constant repetition of the same message (friends and opponents alike referred to it – mostly with good-humoured indulgence – as his “single transferable speech”) his response was that the problem hadn’t changed and, therefore, neither did the answer. And so his message became an essential part of the vernacular in which the three-fold set of relationships he sought to resolve were discussed – relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between Ireland and Britain. It was called “Hume-speak”.

As this volume of essays reveals, John Hume was not lacking in critics, nor was he above criticism. Many people in the unionist community regarded him as, at best, an incessant peddler of cliches, or, at worst, a cunning, devious and unscrupulous manipulator of well-meaning people who wished to help, but didn’t really understand the Northern Ireland problem. John is open to the criticism that he should have devoted more of his time and his formidable powers of persuasion to trying to change attitudes in the traditional unionist community. Possibly he decided that the task of prising open the closed mindset of unionism, as he perceived it, was beyond his or anyone else’s capacity, and that his time and his powers were better used in pursuing objectives where the difficulties and obstacles were less forbidding. But it remains a moot point.

On the other hand, some in the Irish national community, at home and abroad, condemned and despised his non-violent politics. Such people insisted that violence was the only means of making progress, and that Hume and his followers weakened and diminished the resolve of Irish nationalists to reunify the country by armed force. Others in the Irish national community, especially some Dublin-based commentators, regarded him as a dangerous agitator who threatened to precipitate a sectarian holocaust in the North, by stirring up old nationalist grievances and ambitions, and that the relatively stable southern state would be dragged into the ensuing strife. Indeed, some of his Dublin-based critics evinced much greater empathy with northern unionists, and one of the more prominent of them, former Irish government minister Conor Cruise O’Brien, actually joined a hardline unionist fringe party and became, for a time, one of its main spokespersons in the 1996-8 negotiations at Stormont.

However Hume is regarded, most commentators acknowledge that he was the principal architect of the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, the agreement that has transformed constitutional and institutional arrangements for governing Northern Ireland, and has also restructured relationships with the rest of Ireland, as well as relationships between the whole of Ireland and Britain.

The contributions in this volume offer intriguing analyses of one of Ireland’s most important public figures. These analyses include;

- a description of the northern political context into which Hume was born, and from which he emerged to become a dominant figure in Irish political life from the late 1960s until he retired in 2005;

- his early forays into public affairs through the credit union movement, and the “university for Derry campaign”;

- his role in the civil rights movement;

- his first election as a representative of his native city;

- his relationships with the powerful figures in Irish, British, American and European politics;

- his involvement in the first power-sharing experiment in 1973-4;

- his later achievements in the European Parliament;

- and his efforts to end the violence and make possible a fully inclusive new dispensation in Northern Ireland.

There are also assessments of his leadership qualities, his place in the pantheon of Irish political leaders, and a description by his indomitable wife, Pat, of life with one of the great men of our time.

Éamon Phoenix’s opening chapter traces the political and social background to John Hume’s childhood and youth. His review spans the years from partition in 1920 to the early 1960s, and highlights the disarray, the sense of betrayal and entrapment that had gripped many within the nationalist community in the North throughout that period. Nationalist attitudes and feelings were matched by equally negative unionist feelings of the need to dominate to “ensure” against any possible loss of control. In the public domain, relationships between the two communities remained frozen for several decades following partition, and it was not until the late 1950s that any signs of a thaw in those relationships began to emerge. It was then that John Hume was taking his first steps onto the public stage.

Paul Arthur discusses Hume’s apprenticeship to public life in the early 1960s, first in Derry where his strong belief in self-help sparked his interest in and commitment to the credit union movement as a vehicle to assist people and lift them out of poverty. There quickly followed his involvement in and leadership of the campaign to have the North’s second university sited in Derry. When this campaign failed to achieve its objective, there followed his almost inevitable involvement in the civil rights movement and his entrée into a political career that would endure for the next 35 years.

Austin Currie, John Hume’s close political colleague and co-founder of the SDLP, discusses the emergence of the civil rights movement, and the slow process of transforming nationalist politics from a loose, disorganised alliance of individuals into a properly structured modern political party in the SDLP. Currie stresses the non-violent nature of the civil rights movement, its success in winning extensive reform in public housing allocation, in local government, in the local franchise and even initial reforms in policing. Hume’s influence was critical in articulating these demands and in shaping the early development of the SDLP.

Maurice Hayes offers a fascinating insight into the brief period of hope that surrounded the Sunningale Agreement of 1973, its precarious and short-lived implementation over the first five months of 1974 when it was threatened by militant loyalist and by unionist strikers, as well as by paramilitaries on all sides. As a senior civil servant Hayes worked closely with the power-sharing executive and particularly with Hume who, as the minister responsible for energy, was a particular target of the strikers who had assumed control of the North’s main power stations. There followed the futile attempt to reach inter-party agreement in the Northern Ireland Convention, 1975-6, and the onset of a long, politically barren period for Hume and his SDLP colleagues.

The transformation of mainstream political thinking in the South on Northern Ireland was due to a considerable extent to John Hume and the SDLP. Seán Donlon, from his vantage point as a key member of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ team charged with maintaining contact with leading public figures in the North throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, traces the development of Hume’s influence, and in particular his relationships with southern political leaders Jack Lynch, Garret FitzGerald and Charles Haughey. Donlon’s discussion includes Hume’s initiatives in the United States and Europe. In each case he highlights Hume’s effectiveness in building alliances and friendships that would eventually help achieve a comprehensive agreement in Northern Ireland.

David McKittrick reflects on perceptions of John Hume as he dealt with British prime ministers and secretaries of state over a period of 30 years. Prime ministers like Heath, Thatcher, Major and Blair were among those he regarded as willing to take bold steps towards a settlement, while Wilson and Callaghan were hesitant and acquiescent when confronted by unionism. Thatcher was the most surprising since she had refused concessions to the hunger strikers in 1981, had dismissed the recommendations in the New Ireland Forum’s report in 1984, but then within a year had signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, an agreement Hume had helped to shape. It was a watershed moment in that it gave the Irish Government a formal consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland and reflected Hume’s firm view that both governments needed to work together in the search for agreement. Of the many secretaries of state sent to Northern Ireland Hume had respect for only a few, notably Whitelaw and Brooke, both of whom also demonstrated a capacity for risk-taking in the interest of peace and a political settlement.

Arthur Aughey discusses how John Hume was perceived and judged by many unionists, but whether by all is open to question. To many he was perceived in extremely negative terms as a leader of nationalism intent on deceiving unionists on to a path that would inevitably trap them into a united Ireland. Confirming this perception, Marianne Elliott remarks in her chapter that, as a member of the Opsahl Commission, she was “surprised to discover the level of animosity towards John Hume expressed by so many Protestants”. The chapter is extremely important in highlighting one reason – unionist apprehensions about what might be in store – why it took so long to reach the 1998 agreement.

From his unique position as assistant to and close confidant of John Hume, Mark Durkan’s intriguing chapter discusses Hume’s central role in persuading Sinn Féin to abandon support for the IRA’s futile and violent campaign to extract a British declaration of intent to withdraw from Northern Ireland over the heads of the people of the North. Firmly opposed to violence as the means of effecting constitutional change in Ireland, Hume’s appreciation of Irish history taught him that division in Ireland long predated partition, and that unity could only be achieved by those who were convinced of its benefits convincing those who were not. Furthermore, he forcibly argued that violence only deepened existing division and inhibited any progress towards unity. Durkan carefully traces the background to Hume’s dialogue with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, which commenced in 1987 following the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the UK government’s affirmation that it would facilitate unity if that were to be the wishes of a majority in the North. He then discusses the parallel process of inter-party discussions during the Brooke/Mayhew talks of 1991-2, and their contribution to the later negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The convergence of both processes was to be made possible with the 1994 IRA and loyalist ceasefires.

Seán O’Huiginn, a close colleague of Donlon’s in the Department of Foreign Affairs, traces Hume’s efforts to influence the republican movement away from its brutal and futile campaign of violence towards participation in mainstream politics through his highly controversial dialogue with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin which extended over several years before eventually achieving the Provisional IRA’s ceasefire in 1994. O’Huiginn’s reference to Hume’s scraps of “papyrus”, as he describes the many pieces of paper on which John would have noted drafts of possible statements for the Irish and British governments to make, highlights Hume’s unorthodox manner of record keeping – everything was a work in progress and nothing was finalised until it was finalized and agreed.

In the European Union Hume found a stage and a model well suited to his style of politics. As a product of post-second World War efforts by France, Germany and Italy in particular to overcome the causes which had led to two world wars in 40 years, and the subsequent legacy of bitterness, Hume was strongly influenced by the consensual approach adopted within its institutions, and by the recognition and respect afforded all its members. He had always wanted to develop the SDLP in the consensual tradition of European social democracy, rather than follow the confrontational model of the British labour movement. Likewise, as a model for conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, he pointed to the manner in which the European Parliament and the European Commission operated. Brigid Laffan examines Hume’s role in Europe and how he used the opportunities he found there to develop relationships and take initiatives that would benefit Northern Ireland in the search for a negotiated agreement. It was another part of his strategy to seek a political solution in a wider context than on the narrow ground of the North itself and, as far as Hume was concerned, Europe offered the ideal context, and the institutional models for overcoming the effects of violent conflict.

Nancy Soderberg, a close aide, first to Senator Edward Kennedy, then to President Bill Clinton, outlines from the perspective of her very strategic position, the influence Hume was able to exercise over decision-makers in the US Congress and in the White House. As in Europe, the carefully nurtured relationships with key representatives like Hugh Carey, Edward Kennedy, Daniel Moynihan and Tip O’Neill helped Hume gain the ear of White House incumbents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and above all Bill Clinton. Such relationships helped steer most Irish-Americans away from supporting the Provisional IRA and in favour of a peaceful resolution. A corollary was the support Hume won for US investment in the North and in the South’s border regions through the International Fund for Ireland.

Marianne Elliott discusses John Hume against the background of Ireland’s national struggle, using Wolfe Tone’s oft-quoted statement of his aims being to unite all of the people of Ireland and to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, as her departure point. Tone was not an historical figure that Hume himself would have sought inspiration from – Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were more likely to feature in his discourse. However, abolishing the malign influence of “past dissensions”, if not the memory, was part of Hume’s objectives, and the manner in which he set about transforming nationalist attitudes and challenging those of unionists, is central to her discussion. Elliott argues that Hume’s articulation of the objectives adopted by the Dungannon-based Campaign for Social Justice, and by the broader-based Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, were “a return to the essence of constitutional nationalism”. She sees Hume as urging, like successful constitutional leaders in the past, that nationalists could more effectively change the status quo from within than by attempting to overthrow it by force. His message that a united Ireland could only come about by the will of a northern majority and that it could only be achieved through a process of reconciliation, resonated with other voices that were being raised within the North’s nationalist community in the early 1960s. But Hume’s articulation of the message was to become the most forceful, the most clearly and persistently argued, hence the most influential.

Cathy Gormley-Heenan offers a critical assessment of Hume’s leadership “in terms of his role, capacity and effectiveness rather than … leadership in more personal terms”. She compares him to the salmon steadily swimming upstream, against the current of other opinions, and “against the tide of his own party at times”. Despite the hazards, like the salmon he persists until he reaches the goal he had predetermined from the outset. On his hazardous journey she argues that “Hume maintained continuity of thought and action throughout his time as leader of the SDLP [and …] his oft-repeated view was that the conflict was as a consequence of the division of the people on the island of Ireland and not the territory of the island of Ireland and he never wavered from a complete insistence on the non-violent approach”. These were the qualities that marked his leadership and in them he was vindicated by the Good Friday Agreement.

Finally, Pat Hume, John’s wife, offers a very personal insight into John’s public life, its effects on their family life as well as very acute perceptions on the general political scene. Her account of the toll that Northern Ireland’s apparently unending tragedies took on her husband’s health and well-being reminds readers of the impact of risks taken to achieve peace and, indeed, how much a politician like John Hume needed the support of a companion like Pat.

John Hume: Irish Peacemaker, edited by Seán Farren and Denis Haughey, is published by Four Courts Press, €24.95

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